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Home arrow Articles arrow Live At Pompeii arrow In-depth analysis - part THREE and interview with Adrian Maben (first half)
In-depth analysis - part THREE and interview with Adrian Maben (first half) Print E-mail

Terra Firma On Fire
Revisiting Live at Pompeii - PART THREE

Together with the first half of our interview with director Adrian Maben

A four part analysis by Paul Powell Jr, with help and suggestions from Adrian Maben.

Pink Floyd Live At PompeiiUnless you live in close proximity to an active or dormant volcano, you could wrap up an entire lifetime of experiences without concerning yourself with pyroclastic flow, sulfuric acid clouds, or pumice ash. With over 1500 active volcanos on planet earth, today roughly 500 million people live within the danger zone of one of nature's most unpredictable explosive forces. Well beneath the earth's crust, the restless heat of creation left over by the planet's formation 4.5 billion years ago, occasionally cracks and bursts through terra firma, ejecting molten rock, asphyxiating gas and various fragmental matter, often with catastrophic results.

The Mount Vesuvius volcano eruption in 79 AD directly impacted the ancient Italian cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae, destroying each location and ultimately sending reverberations throughout the ancient world. Its cataclysmic aftermath still influences people today from all walks of life, enriching the science fields to inspiring the creative arts. In this article, I'm going to encapsulate and explore the dynamics of volcanism, visit the excavated city of Pompeii, and go behind the scenes for the making of Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii with Director Adrian Maben.

Picturesque yet notorious, Mount Vesuvius is located 12 miles south-east of Naples, just inside the coast of southern Italy, rising 1,281 meters above the Bay of Naples. While currently quiet, the infamous mountain is the only active volcano on the European mainland. Thanks to steady tourism, the nearby city of Pompeii continues to thrive, attracting some 2.5 million visitors each year. Some of these visitors are Floyd fans whom snap up pictures of the area, especially the huge elliptical amphitheater where the Live at Pompeii footage was shot. One of the many archaeological treasures, the huge structure could hold up to 20,000 spectators, often gathering there to watch bloodsports where gladiators or wild animals clash, traditionally battling to the death. This ancient amphitheater, one of the oldest elliptical structures known, antedates the Colosseum in Rome by more than a century and a half, dating back to 70 BC.

In addition to the amphitheater, there are two smaller theaters, three public baths richly decorated, and a large rectangular forum floored with rich marble with rising colonnades on both sides forming covered walkways. Outside Pompeii itself, if you watch the Live at Pompeii film closely, you will remember the Floyd were fascinated with the many bubbling mud holes on a trek into the countryside. This primordial area is a short distance west of Naples called the Phlegraean Fields. There the active landscape is scarred with nasty little mudpots and steam vents called fumaroles, and large shallow lakes bubbling with active gas emissions. Not really a charming place to visit unless you are a vulcanologist, or a very brave tourist.

Mount Vesuvius is part of a classification of volcano known as a composite or stratovolcano, characterized by their potential for being unpredictable and highly explosive. Today, Pompeii's local residents may find it unsettling to learn that Mount Vesuvius is still an active volcano. In December 1631, the volcano unleashed another terrifying sequence of pyroclastic surges, this time killing 4000 residents. The last major eruption of the volcano in March 1944 sent lava and mud flows streaming into the sea, ruining many houses along the way but sparing human lives. Recently, Italian and French scientists found a massive reservoir layer of magma located fives miles below the surface of Vesuvius and the Phlegraean Fields.

Also located at the site is a caldera, defined as a huge collapsed crater; the geological signature of a supervolcano and the hardest to detect but most devastating natural forces on earth. Currently six hundred thousand people live within the 4.3 mile radius red zone of another volcanic eruption. A plan by Italian officials to pay local residents to move away from the volcanic danger zone has been met mostly with indifference, especially the older settled population. Vulcanologists over the last decade have become much better at predicting eruptions by listening to the thousands of mini-earthquakes near volcano sites as magma pushes upwards towards the earth's crust. As the frequency of seismic rumbles increase, the risk of an eruption increases. For vulcanologists, monitoring volcanoes up-close is the ultimate adrenaline rush, however it does not diminish the deadly risk involved, for in 1993, ten scientists surveying the crater of a Colombian volcano perished in an unexpected blast. The Vesuvius Observatory, in collaboration with world's best vulcanologists, are monitoring changes deep within the magma chamber of the volcano, in preparation for that fateful day when Mount Vesuvius wakes from her peaceful slumber.

The chain reaction of the Mount Vesuvius cataclysm began on August 24, 79 AD when sticky hot magma built up deep inside the volcano core until the mountain exploded violently, ejecting massive amounts of burning gas and fragmented rock material called pyroclastic flow, racing towards and destroying the nearby cities of Herculaneum and Stabiae. In addition, the Mount Vesuvius eruption also blasted unimaginable volumes of hot ash and gases, pumice fragments and smoldering cinders 18 miles high into the atmosphere, ultimately falling on Pompeii as a suffocating tomb of death. The horrific volcanic fallout obliterated the city when over three thousand people perished quickly in Mount Vesuvius' angry eruption. Some scientific accounts place more than thirty feet of hot ash accumulation in the city and surrounding countryside.

It is estimated that a total of sixteen thousand people perished in the catastrophe with all three cities and surrounding countryside combined. The archaeological byproduct of Pompeii's cataclysm is that the many layers of ash preserved the cities architecture mostly intact, including its inhabitants, frozen in the short agonizing moments of their death. Today you can see plaster casts of these bodies created by archaeologists from pouring plaster into cavities left by the hardened volcanic ash.

It took the rediscovery of Pompeii in 1748 to facilitate the excavation of the city, revealing a wealth of Roman style architecture and artwork in the form of intricate floor mosaics and colorful wall frescoes. In recent years, a large cache of erotic frescoes and sculptures excavated from the ruins of Pompeii have gone on display in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, informing and captivating the public. The real irony is after two thousand years of enduring earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and droves of art treasure looters, it is mainly pollution from modern times that threatens to erode much of Pompeii's classic art and architecture.

While often majestic with their snow-covered peaks, volcanic mountains like Japan's Mount Fuji, Indonesia's Krakatoa and Tambora, California's Mount Shasta, Oregon's Mount Hood, and Washington's Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier are currently being monitored by vulcanologists for signs of seismic and volcanic activity. The magnitude of volcanic eruptions are compared by the VEI, or Volcanic Explosivity Index. Each succeeding category represents a tenfold increase in explosivity over the next lower category. For example, Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD and Krakatoa in 1883 were huge explosions scoring a VEI of 6. Mount St. Helen's dramatic pyroclastic flow and avalanches in 1980 rated a VEI of 5, or very large explosion. The largest volcanic explosion in modern times was Tambora in 1815, rating a colossal VEI of 7, killing some 70,000 people and blasting enormous amounts of pumice, rock and ash high into the upper atmosphere.

The global environmental effects from the Tambora eruption were so extreme that North America experienced a year without summer in 1816, as a result of the massive amount of atmospheric dust and sulfur dioxide gas blanketing out the warming rays of sunlight. All over the earth disruptive weather changes occurred; altered rain patterns shifted fertile moist lands into dry arid ones, and along with a global temperature drop of some ten degrees, there were unimaginable killing frosts and snowstorms all during the summer months. It is hard for us to imagine today how a volcanic eruption half-way around the world could ultimately result in widespread crop failures, sending portions of the population into famine and disorder, yet it reminds us how very fragile and precious life is here on planet earth. While the colossal eruptor Tambora was the greatest volcanic event in modern times, the Indonesian supervolcano Toba some 74,000 years ago blasted a humongous 8 on the VEI scale, effectively obliterating a large percentage of Earth's population.

For the remainder of our revisit to Live at Pompeii, we're moving briskly away from volcanoes and Pompeii to present the first part of an extensive and revealing interview with film director Adrian Maben. Just below the Maben interview, I have included several weblinks for further reading on the topics covered in this article. Next time around in our fourth and final article in the Pompeii series, I'll review in-depth the newly released Director's Cut DVD of Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii, and conclude our insightful interview with Director Adrian Maben.

Interview with Adrian Maben - part one

Q: How did Mademoiselle Nobs get done?

Adrian Maben: During the shoot in Paris, which took place in the spring of 1972 in order to patch up some of the holes that had been left in the Pompeii live footage, the group decided that they wanted to do a howling dog blues sequence. Could I find a sensitive dog - preferably an Afghan - that would "howl" when the harmonica was played? I had no idea about singing dogs but I did remember Madonna Bouglione, the thirty year old daughter (niece?) of the circus director Joseph Bouglione, who was known to walk around the streets of Paris with an Afghan hound named Nobs. Could the dog do the trick?

Madonna came to the Studios de Boulogne in the outskirts of Paris pulling behind her on a lead the nervous looking, skinny Nobs. David played the harmonica, Roger the acoustic guitar and Rick kept the hound on the table and pointed the microphone in the right direction. As it turned out Nobs was pretty much in tune. By the time the film was released she had become a star...

Q: How was the city of Pompeii chosen as the site for your live footage? Why Pompeii and not Croydon?

Adrian Maben: The original idea in 1971 was to make a film and use contemporary paintings or sculptures by de Chirico, Delvaux, Magritte, Tinguely and Christo in some kind of surrealistic decor. I naively thought that it would be possible to combine good art with Pink Floyd music.

There was a rather embarrassing first meeting in London with Steven O’Rourke, the manager, and David Gilmour when I cautiously produced a few books and some photos of the paintings. They were both polite and totally unconvinced. We agreed to talk about the subject at a later date.

In other words, forget the whole idea.

In the early summer of that year I went on holiday in Italy. I had this French girlfriend and I wanted to take her to Rome - the city where I had studied film technique at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematographia. We traveled further South by coach to Naples and then on to Pompeii. We paid our entrance fee to the ancient city and trudged around under the hot sun in the afternoon: The Forum, The Villa dei Misteri, The Temple of Jupiter...

In the early evening I discovered that I had lost my passport somewhere in the ruins, possibly in the amphitheater where we had sat and ate a sandwich. I rushed back to the iron gate - one of the entrances to Pompeii at that time - and tried to explain to the guards what had happened. Surprisingly they let me in and I returned alone, retracing my steps along the empty streets of Pompeii, back to the amphitheater of stone walls and seats.

It was strange. A huge deserted amphitheater filled with echoing insect sounds, flying bats and the disappearing light which meant that I could hardly see the opposite side of this huge structure built more than two thousand years ago.

I knew by instinct that this was the place for the film. It had to be here. It somehow all came together that evening in the ancient city. Film the empty amphitheater, resurrect the spirit of Pompeii with sound and color, imagine that ghosts of the past could somehow return.

I never found my passport.

Later on I read Gradiva by W. Jensen (and Freud's analysis of his story), in which a German archaeologist walks round Pompeii under the midday sun and catches a fleeting glance (or thinks that he catches a fleeting glance) of a young woman dressed as though she had lived two thousand years ago. Is this some kind of hallucination? Has he gone mad or does she really exist? The atmosphere of the book, spooky and moving, was exactly the kind of feeling that I wanted to establish for the film. Gradiva, the impression that she might really be there, just round the corner so to speak.

Croydon, somehow, didn't have the same appeal.

There was another reason.

By the end of the sixties, several concert films or reportages on musicians had already been made: Bob Dylan’s gritty black and white tour in England "Don't Look Back," magnificently filmed by Pennebaker, The Rolling Stones "Gimme Shelter," the Richard Lester films with the Beatles and above all "Woodstock" released in 1969.

Most of these musical films relied heavily on the relationship between the band and their public. There had to be a vast audience, the band had to be seen as being hugely successful. Rock films had already become a cliché...

What was the point of doing the same kind of concert film with the Floyd? Would it not be better to find a different idea instead of doing yet another documentary with fans and an enthusiastic public? Filming music should mean more than simply recording a concert or following musicians on the road as they travel from one city to the next.

Q: How did you get the Floyd’s equipment to Pompeii?

Adrian Maben: In those days the Pink Floyd had a lot of equipment, in fact a vast amount of equipment. It all had to be loaded up onto Avis trucks and driven down from London to Pompeii. It probably took about three days to get there.

Q: Any sites in the city of Pompeii that you were restricted from filming? Were there any bureaucratic problems?

Adrian Maben: The Soprintendenza of Naples - the official board that controls the site of Pompeii - was certainly suspicious of letting a rock group play in the amphitheater. After searching around I was lucky to meet a professor of the University of Naples - professor Carputti - who had good connections with the Soprintendenza and who was also a Pink Floyd fan. After an exchange of letters and the payment of the entrance fee (fairly steep even in those days) the problem was solved and we were given permission to film within the walls of the amphitheater - and elsewhere - for a period of six days.

Q: What was the reaction of the locals?

Adrian Maben: Only a few children from Pompeii (about ten) found their way into the amphitheater while we were working there. They sat quietly in a corner behind the cameras and occasionally darted out to ask for an autograph from the members of the band, from the manager Steven O’Rourke, or from the sound engineers...

Thirty years later I returned to Pompeii for the Director’s Cut to request permission to do a low flying helicopter sequence above the streets of the ancient city. I found myself in the Tourist Authority Information Center. The director, a well dressed man in his late thirties, immediately recognized me and said, "How strange to see you here again. I was one of the children who watched the film being made in 1971! What can I do to help?"

Thanks to that chance meeting the helicopter shot suddenly became possible.

Q: How were the tracks selected for the film ?

Adrian Maben: Echoes Part I and Part II because the album Meddle was about to be released. The other tracks were mostly chosen by the band. I politely and cautiously requested Saucerful of Secrets because I thought that it would look great in the amphitheater with Roger’s spectacular beating of the gong and David’s controlled improvisation on the Stratocaster.

Q: Any anecdotes about the shoot?

Adrian Maben: After having more or less agreed to do the film in Pompeii the Floyd were insistent on one technical point: NO PLAYBACK. The sound had to be recorded live, as though we were making a record, on 16 track tape. As it turned out the quality of the recording was exceptional - probably because of the natural acoustics of the stone built amphitheater.

One day, a stereo CD should be made with all the rehearsals, the outtakes and the noise of the children playing. There’s a lot of unused material on those tapes.

It took us three days to get the electricity to work in the amphitheater. I was going crazy trying to get the problem fixed while the group was hanging around doing nothing because there was nothing to do. On the third day of despair Peter Watts suggested we fly in an Englishman from London. "An electrical wizard," he said with enormous conviction. "Someone who could fix the problem in the twinkling of an eye."

We were just about to ring him when suddenly, miraculously, the current was switched on. A gigantic cable stretched from the amphitheater to a modern Church in the town of Pompeii...

There was also this idea of filming the band in a restaurant. The Hotel where we were staying would have been the ideal place to film such a sequence. We all wanted to do it. There would have been Italian waiters and pasta and local wine and lots of chit chat. In the end the idea was abandoned - there was no time and no money - but it returned like a boomerang to the Abbey Road Studio canteen a few years later.

Tea and apple pie (without the crust) were on the menu.

Thirty years later, during the making of the Director’s Cut, I returned to Pompeii and went round to revisit the old Hotel. All the shutters of the thirty odd rooms were drawn. It had obviously been closed down for years, it had become abandoned property - a sort of second Pompeii.

I thought of using it for the Director’s Cut. But would it be possible to get in touch with the owners, to revisit the dusty bedrooms and the large restaurant and kitchens where we never managed to film? Would they agree? And even if I used this new sequence would anybody who saw the film understand the passage of time?

I also distinctly remember listening to the first recording of Echoes in my hotel room. The band had brought me a sample vinyl record and I listened to it with the help of a portable plastic gramophone borrowed from the concierge. Overnight I had to finish the technical analysis (camera angles, position of the tracking shots etc) with a pen, a ruler, a stop-watch borrowed from the script girl, Marie-Noelle Zurstrassen, and a child’s exercise book.

I've still got the exercise book somewhere...

After the sixth day of the shoot the Floyd left immediately and the producer wasn’t able to pay the Hotel bill. No more cash! I was asked to remain in the Hotel - a prisoner of Pompeii - and to wait for the money to arrive.

The crew had departed. The negative film had been taken to Rome and would then (hopefully) be flown to Paris to be developed and printed. As I sat alone in the Hotel and drank too much wine I mused on what to do next. Above all, there was the nagging question about whether the band would accept to play later in Paris to fill in the holes that I had left in the Pompeii shoot because of the tight schedule.

Helpful Links on Volcanoes and Pompeii:

Volcano World Vesuvius page:

Volcano educational pages:

Smithsonian Institutution Global Volcanism Program:

United States Geological Survey:

Official Pompeii site, Soprintendenza Archeologica di Pompei:

If you're planning on going to Pompeii on a budget:

To learn more about Pompeii excavations and preservation efforts:

To learn more about Pompeii's erotic art scene, search for "Pompeii" at:

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